It’s been five years since my diagnosis. When the doctor said Parkinson's Disease I thought I heard her wrong. I laughed and told her that I was only fifty-five. Her face fell and she said, “Yes, I know.”
Staring out at the wintery wonderland over my box of pills, my thickened coffee, and my cane, the glass pane of the floor to ceiling windows feels like a cage. An impenetrable fortress of glass that shields me from the crisp air and the soft snowflakes.
My hands shake. They call it a pill rolling tremor. My brain wants to jump up and pour another coffee, yet my body produces a defiant refusal, like a sentry denying passage. What an odd thing it has been, to watch my body turn against itself, pulling me into the nearest chair or bed and never letting me leave.
With a painful swallow, my pills are taken, though I can’t say they do any good. I do my exercises every day, though I can’t say they do anything either. But I still do them, if not for the insanity it helps fend off by doing something other than watch the world pass me by. It takes me half an hour, but I wiggle my way to the door and slide it open. That’s how I move now. I wiggle and writhe. It’s exhausting. The rush of morning air snaps on my cheeks, drying my eyes. A wide smile casts across my face, remembering how life used to be.
I used to ice skate. No back flips or triple axles. Just soft and easy gliding across the ice. I close my eyes to the slicing of the ice as the blade cuts a line in a figure eight. The easy bend of my knees and the arched back that feels like a playground from childhood. My fingers ache from the cold and my cheeks flush crimson. I am free.
A knock on the door. Oh yes, my neighbor Megan. She is a physical therapist and insists on helping me when she is done with work. It is yet another thing to do that moves my body, only to have it recoil like a rubber band after she’s finished. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she says. Her long chestnut hair bounces with the energy of her voice. Oh, the freedom of a body unrestrained. What I wouldn’t give to feel that again.
I’m grouchy, like I always am. My face has a hard time showing emotion nowadays. My mouth rarely smiles, so I’m forced to reflect on happiness quietly, in my mind.
“Emily, what are you doing at the door? It’s freezing out there,” she says.
“I used to skate.”
“Oh. You did?” The surprise in everyone’s voice that you used to be human and move like one never ceases to irritate me.
“I wasn’t great, but I loved it. I used to go to...” My voice catches, like a sweater snagging on a tree branch.
“You would go where?”
My hand up to her face, I say, “I wasn’t finished.” Her lips tighten and she nods. I continue. “I would go to the frozen lake and glide in circles. It was like a dream.”
“That’s lovely.” She smiles. “We should shut the door.”
As she reaches across me, my arm shakes and jerks and eventually lands on her arm. “No,” I tell her. “I want to feel the air and watch the snowflakes fall.
“OK, then.” Her arm drops to her side.
“You don’t have to do this for me. I can exercise myself.”
“It’s hard to stretch yourself. Besides, I enjoy coming to see you,” she says.
I let out a deep belly laugh. It comes from the depths of me, both shocking and sad that willful company is laughable.
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“In a word? Yes.” I fumble my way to the chair to rest my rigid legs. “I’m a surly curmudgeon who can’t hardly manage a smile.”
“No, you are a kind human being who made me brownies when I first moved to the neighborhood and babysat my son when I had to work late.”
“I didn’t do all that?”
“I assure you, you did,” she says.
“Well, pretty soon I’ll need to move to a retirement home. Just getting my pants on in the morning, I break into a cold sweat.”
“Come on, let’s stretch those hips.”
There is a wispy cobweb fluttering from the ceiling. Hangin on by one end, it wafts in the movement of the heater vent. I imagine a surfer is on there, riding the waves into a sandy beach.
I haven’t noticed it until now. Not until I was lying on my back on the kitchen floor, unable to move for the past hour. I worked on rolling off the linoleum and after a great expenditure of energy, I now rest on the carpet. Much more manageable.
“Oh, goodness!” Megan says when she bursts in the front door.
“Don’t go calling the morgue, I just fell.”
“Is anything hurt?” She begins inspecting me.
“No. Just my pride.”
“Well, come on.” She wraps her dainty little arms around me and lifts me to a chair.
“How did you do that?”
“I lift people all day,” she says flippantly.
“No exercise. Not today.” I wave my hand in the air with finality.
“OK. But Emily, is it time to discuss getting you more help?”
My face flushes hot. Traitor. Just like everyone else. Roll Grandma into a corner and tilt her so she can watch the birds from the window. “You can leave now.”
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but what if you break a leg in the middle of the night?”
“Then I will have one less limb to worry about. Now go on.”
“I said go. Off to save some other old lady.” I turn away from her, in a huff like a toddler.
She actually listened to me, that twit. She knows I’m surly and angry and what did she go and listen to me for? I might hate her coddling, but I do enjoy hearing how that little monster of a son has turned out. A deep ache grows in my belly. I’m lonely. And now I’ve gone and screamed at the only person who would find me if I fell ass over tit in the bathroom.
I consider throwing myself back to the floor and wait for the good lord to take me. It couldn’t take that long. What, 5, 6 days? With my luck, my body will hold out like the good soldier it is. I’m from hearty peasant stock. Could be weeks.
And then, a door latch. My heart twitches — I wasn’t sure I had one before now — and my hope swells when Megan comes back in.
“Enough,” she says. She shuffles in my closet and comes out with a wheelchair.
“Where do you think we are going? It’s snowing out there.”
“Out. We are going out.” She lifts me again, completely against my will. But if I’m honest, I breathe a sigh of relief to be cared for. She plops me in and wraps me in all manner of jackets and scarves and gloves and a knit cap.
“Are you leaving me out to freeze?” I snap.
So, she throws me in her car, and rummages around my house, returning with a bag. “Buckle up.”
“Always what one wants to hear as a passenger.” I do as I’m told, a little frightened by her newfound intensity.
We drive down a winding hill, the snowy white view out my window flying past me in a blur. We roll up to Sugar Lake. Megan puts the car into park and throws the bag in my lap. “What’s this?” I ask.
Inside are my ice skates. Anger rolls through me like thunder. “I can’t hardly walk. And you think I can skate?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“Good heavens, I…” Before I can finish that thought, she has opened my door, lifts me to standing, throws the skates over her shoulder, and practically carries me to the ice. “This is cruel. Are you trying to show me how much I’ve lost?”
“No. I’m trying to show you how to talk to your body again.”
I don’t say a word as she sits me down on a log at the edge of the frozen lake. She laces them and the tightness on my feet send waves of panic through me. Nothing like putting a
spastic on tiny metal rails to wake up the fear inside.
“Come on.” She lifts me with her hands. The ice is hard and smooth at the same time. Crackling under our feet as the ice settles. A deep blue shines from under my feet.
Am I moving? My knee bends, then my hip, like a necklace falling over a graceful neck, my legs soften and begin to glide. Megan holds me by the hand, leaving the other free to wave through the air. The cold, crisp air of winter. She pulls out her phone and begins to play music. Swan Lake. “The music unlocks the brain, allows freedom in a way you can’t produce yourself.”
And then the orchestra grows, the music dancing on my ears. I let go. I’m gliding and soaring and the snow-capped pines frame me like a picture. I’m dancing and cozy in bed at the same time. My body relaxed, still, fluid. Snow flurries flutter from the sky. I tilt my head back and open my mouth to let the light drops of snow fall on my tongue and lips. The cloudy white mist from the clouds hovers over me.
“Am I really doing this?” I say in wonder. It’s like a child learning to swim for the first time. Or dream for the first time.
“Yes,” she says with a laugh.
“I never want to stop.” My feet don’t move much and I can’t spin, but I don’t care. “This might be the best day of my life.”
“Take your time. I can play Tschaikovsky until my battery runs out.”
So I do. I glide and turn and float along the ice until I can’t feel my legs anymore. And it is glorious. My face pulls into a smile. A real, authentic smile.